Ukraine weathers previously unthinkable: 50 days of Russian war
Ukraine has weathered what weeks ago was viewed as unthinkable — more than 50 days of an onslaught from Russia, its larger and more powerful neighbor.
When Moscow’s troops first invaded in February, many observers did not think that Ukraine and its embattled president, Volodymyr Zelensky, would last the month.
Instead, Ukraine is still standing and defiant nearly two months later as Russian forces have retreated from the areas surrounding Kyiv to focus on a continued fight in the east.
Ukraine’s perseverance is widely credited to the bravery of its leaders, its military and everyday citizens who have ruled through seven weeks of hardships. Ukraine has won several victories — including this week’s sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva.
“I think the prime factor here has been the Ukrainians’ determination to preserve their liberty, to preserve their independence,” said Rose Gottemoeller, former deputy secretary general of NATO. “The Russians didn’t realize the degree to which the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 had a profound effect on the Ukrainians.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assault also has been fraught with mistakes and miscalculations that have raised new questions about his own military.
“I was really surprised how bad the Russians were,” added Gottemoeller.
Dmytro Gurin, a Ukrainian member of parliament, said in an interview Friday that the Russians and the international community underestimated Ukraine’s ability to resist.
“We understand what we are fighting for,” Gurin said. “The real story about this war is Russians, they really thought that we would meet them with flowers.”
The war has followed a Russian playbook laid bare in previous military campaigns. Many have likened the brutality of the recent strikes to Russian bombardment of Grozny in Chechnya during the 1990s.
Russia has launched devastating strikes on civilian areas, and there have been reports of rapes and torture, leading to accusations of war crimes. President Biden recently accused Putin of committing genocide in Ukraine.
The United Nations said Friday that more than 1,900 civilians have been killed in Ukraine and more than 2,600 had been injured. The real figures are likely much higher.
“[Putin] is trying to break the will of the Ukrainians people and of course the Ukrainian government at all levels,” said Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Ukraine and Russia under the Obama administration. “He thinks that visiting these horrors upon them, that they might give up.”
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense said that, as of Friday, roughly 20,000 Russian military personnel have died since the start of the war on Feb. 24.
John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, said the U.S. intelligence community did a “dreadful job” assessing the capability of the Ukrainian forces against the Russians.
“I’m part of a larger group, not just of former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine but people who have followed Ukraine closely, and pretty much everyone in our group knew that the Kremlin was going to have a harder time with this invasion,” Herbst said.
“Now, none of us predicted that the invasion would go as badly as it did for them. But we knew it was going to be no easy sweep into Kyiv, no easy toppling of the Ukrainian government, and probably no ultimate military Russian military victory over the country,” he said.
The war has now shifted, with Russia focusing on the Donbas region in Ukraine’s east that has been occupied by Russian-backed separatists for eight years.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he believes the war has now entered a third phase after Russia failed to “break the will of the Ukrainians.” He predicted Russia would continue to resort to brutal tactics.
“When bullies get in a corner, they’re going to strike out with whatever they have,” Panetta said in an interview. “I would expect it’s going to be a pretty brutal phase of the war.”
The U.S. and its allies are seeking to fortify Ukraine with more weapons for the next phase.
Slovakia has transferred a Soviet-era S-300 missile defense system to Ukraine to help the country repel Russian strikes. Biden announced $800 million in new assistance this past week, including howitzers and helicopters that were not part of previous packages.
The latest announcement came after Zelensky stepped up public pleas for more weaponry, warning that if Ukraine loses the conflict, Russia could next target surrounding countries such as Poland and Romania.
“We are asking all our friends and partners to provide us with everything they can as quickly as they can so that this stage of the war, which is going to be very difficult — I mean, it already is very difficult — that we will win it because we need to win it,” Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova said during a Washington Post event Friday.
Gurin said that he believes Russia will try to “destroy Ukraine” by wiping out cities and killing people, pointing to the destruction Moscow has already caused in the strategic port city of Mariupol. He warned Russia could take some major action around May 9, or Victory Day, which Moscow usually marks with a military parade.
“They need to show something for their population,” Gurin said, noting that Russian military vehicles usually displayed in the parade had been destroyed by the war.
The U.S. has stepped up warnings that Russia could use chemical weapons and is sending protective gear to Ukraine to prepare for that possibility. CIA Director William Burns also warned Thursday that Russia could use tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons out of desperation.
“All of the world, all of the countries have to be worried,” Zelensky said when asked if he was worried about nuclear weapons use during a CNN interview. “We should think, not be afraid, not be afraid, be ready.”
There is tremendous uncertainty around how long the war could last or how it will play out.
“We believe there is a good chance that the fighting will be protracted, that this will go on for months or even longer,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said during an event Thursday hosted by the Economic Club of Washington.
But he added that “we should all offer some degree of humility in making projections about the course of this war because it’s uncertain as to how exactly it will unfold.”
Peace talks between Ukraine and Russia have yielded little optimism, and Putin seemed to reject them entirely earlier this week.
“My gut tells me that Putin would rather bring full scale war to an end sooner rather than later,” Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served on President Obama’s National Security Council.
He added, however, that the global community could be facing a “simmering frozen conflict that goes on for years.”
“Russian troops have a tendency to show up and not leave,” Kupchan said.
Laura Kelly contributed.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.